Receiving a telephone call or letter from a debt collector can be a frightening experience; however, there are a few things you can do to take control of your situation and keep the collectors at bay.
First, look closely as the very first letter you receive from a debt collector. Collectors are required to tell you the amount you owe, to whom you owe it and the procedure to dispute the bill. The first notification may be the only chance to have to gather this important information, so keep the documents in a safe place. Armed with this information, you can figure out if this outstanding debt is legitimate or if the collector is mistaken.
Second, go on the offensive! Even if you owe the amount sought by the collector, you can decide how you want to communicate. By writing a letter to the debt collector, you can stop them from calling you and stop them from contacting your employer. You can also stop them from contacting you completely if that is what you request. Once the debt collector receives your written request, the collector may only contact you one final time to explain what steps they will take to collect the debt. If you request not to be contacted by the collector, the collector will be forced to take you to court to collect the debt.
Third, if after reviewing your records you discover that the debt collector is wrong about the debt they claim you owe, you can dispute it. You should send a letter with copies of any documentation that proves you paid the amount requested. Your letter disputing the debt must be sent within 30 days of your first contact with the debt collector. Once the debt collector receives your letter, they must not contact you again without written verification proving you owe the debt.
Fourth, if you determine that you actually owe the money sought by the collector, work out a repayment plan. You can ask that your debt be repaid over a period of time using a payment plan that you can afford. Be sure to put this in writing and only agree to an amount that you are positive you can repay. Missing one of these payments could lead to the entire amount being due immediately.
In conclusion, you should not be passive if contacted by a debt collector. You have extensive rights provided by federal and state fair debt collection laws. Keeping good records is the best way to ensure that you can properly dispute a debt when a collector contacts you. Be sure you keep copies of all letters you send to the debt collector and also keep a log of any calls you receive. Send your letters to the debt collector via certified mail to ensure that the collector formally acknowledges receipt. This will help you greatly if you are sued to collect the debt.
Ted A. Bonanno is a California licensed attorney with a Masters Degree in Business Administration. He previously served as an attorney for the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq and spent several years working for the San Diego office of a global law firm. Ted has a general business practice in La Jolla where he lives with his wife and daughter.